The Importance of Practicing Positive Emotions
As important as positive emotions are for us as individuals, they may be even more important for our relationships. They help us forge strong connections with others by breaking down boundaries that separate us from each other. By broadening our attention in ways that help us see ourselves as less distinct from others, they allow us to create all kinds of relationships, including romantic ones.
when we are in romantic relationships, we desire to expand ourselves by including our partner or spouse within our self and we associate that expansion of our self with the other. This influential self-expansion model of love is based on the research of leading relationship scientist Arthur Aron, professor of psychology at Stony Brook University. Aron argues that self-expansion is a catalyst for positive emotions. He and his colleagues use pairs of overlapping circles to ask couples about their relationship quality. On one end of their scale, the pair of circles does not overlap at all, and at the other end, the circles overlap almost completely. The researchers have asked thousands of couples to pick which pair of circles best depicts how they feel about their relationship. The more overlap an individual feels with his or her partner, the better the relationship is likely to fare. This simple measure has been more effective than more complex surveys and interviews at predicting which couples will stay together and which will break up.
Another way positive emotions can enhance relationships is through contagion. Just as we can pass colds along to our partners through physical contagion, so we can pass along our feelings to our partners through emotional contagion. Ever notice how when you spend time with your partner, you often wind up feeling the emotions he or she is experiencing?
Emotional contagion is rather complex and often happens below the level of our consciousness. It results from the fact that we are built to mimic each other. As infants, we start mimicking our parents soon after we are born, behavior that is critical for our development and constitutes a primary pathway to learning and growing throughout our lives. Emotional contagion results from our tendency to copy or synchronize our facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and behaviors with those around us, and as a result take on their emotional landscape.
Slowing Down to Savor
Our response to the events in our lives is just as important as the events themselves. On the red-cape side of things, difficult things happen to all of us. Sometimes we experience big adversities, such as the loss of a job or the death of a loved one. At other times we experience smaller adversities, such as missing a plane or getting stuck in a traffic jam. We have a broad range of ways of responding to those things, and the way we choose to respond has a huge influence on our experience of the events themselves and on the effects the events have on our lives. Psychologists call the way we respond to adverse effects coping.
Imagine you have an appointment with your doctor, who informs you that you are at risk for a heart attack. There are different ways of coping with this difficult medical diagnosis. How would you respond? You could treat it as a problem to be solved, learning all you can about your condition and what you can do to keep your heart healthy. You could seek social support, telling your family and friends about the diagnosis and drawing strength from their loving attention. You could, of course, remain in denial, refusing to tell anyone about the diagnosis and pretending it never happened. Or you could turn to alcohol or drugs to take your mind off the significance of what the doctor told you. More than one of these responses is possible, as are others.
How you choose to respond will likely make a big impact on your health and your life. If you do all you can to take care of your heart, you will be less likely to experience the heart attack. Connecting with your family and friends will help you have a strong support system even if you do have a heart attack. Trying to stay in denial about what the doctor told you may help you feel good in the short term, and drinking or taking drugs might do the same. But denial does nothing good for you in the long run, and substance abuse actually compounds your problem.
On the green-cape side of things, we experience a variety of positive events in our lives. Some are big, such as landing a dream job or getting married, and some are small, such as watching the sunset or getting help from a friend on a home-improvement project. The way we respond to these events has a huge impact on our experience and our lives. Sometimes we just forget them, and sometimes we allow our lives to be transformed as a result of them.
Know Thyself: Identifying Your Strengths
The active cultivation of our character is important for our own growth and development, as well as for that of our partner. As our character develops, we will begin to interact with our partner differently, supporting her in the development of her own character. The more we focus on the identification and cultivation of our individual and collective character strengths, the more we can support each other in our quest to become better versions of ourselves. This doesn’t mean losing ourselves or becoming different people, but rather realizing more of our potential, developing more fully into the unique and wonderful individuals we already are.
This is not to say cultivating our character is easy. Particularly within the context of a romantic relationship, in which your partner has his own set of strengths he is struggling to develop, there will be setbacks, and times when you seem to have forgotten everything you have learned. But the overarching goal of becoming a better person and supporting your partner in the same endeavor provides a powerful and meaningful approach to relationships. And we are fortunate to be able to rely not just on philosophical wisdom but also on a growing body of scientific research.
Positive psychology gives us a wealth of evidence-based approaches for helping us to appreciate the good in our partners and to work to become better ourselves. This research helps us define in great detail the kind of goodness that can occur in human beings, offers us specific ways in which we can find the particular goodness in our partners and in ourselves, and suggests concrete steps we can take to feed and grow that goodness.
Know Your Partner: Applying Your Strengths in Your Relationship
When discussing how to optimize our use of character strengths, we often talk about overusing or underusing them. Think again about the strength of kindness. If someone isn’t very sensitive at all to the needs of others and rarely or never helps them, we can say that person is underusing the strength of kindness. On the other hand, if someone is overly sensitive to the needs of others and is not taking proper care of herself because she is continually helping those around her, we can say that person is overusing the strength of kindness.
Using a strength so that it works both for you and for others is one indication you are using the strength in a balanced, healthy way. Finding this balance can be a challenge and often requires practice and asking for advice from others, including our partner, to make sure we’re using our strength well.
To aid us in the understanding and application of our strengths, it can be very helpful to have conversations with others to explore more deeply what the strengths mean and how they can be used. This is especially true in romantic relationships. Becoming a bit nerdy about strengths can be quite valuable. Including your strengths in the vocabulary of your relationship and discussing them frequently can help you keep a balanced focus on the good things in your life together.
Oftentimes couples have conversations about fixing things in the relationship or in the other person. And it can be important to address those things. But it can be just as important to put aside the red side of the cape in favor of the green side and spend time discussing what’s going well. Strengths conversations can be occasions in which partners can discuss who they really are at their core. They can help each partner better understand the other and feel more deeply understood. In the excitement of early romance most couples spend a lot of time asking questions, being detectives of sorts, and trying to understand what makes their partner tick. As relationships develop and turn into marriages, we tend to engage in these activities less frequently and begin to assume we know all we need to know about our partner. To counteract this unfortunate tendency, it’s critical for couples to exercise their strength of curiosity to keep their relationship moving forward and to help their partner feel truly listened to, cared for, and understood.
“It Takes Two to Make a Thing Go Right”
A romantic relationship itself resembles a dance, an ongoing interaction involving a complex network of initiations and responses. The work of marriage expert John Gottman supports this view. In his long-standing scientific research he has identified the importance of what he calls “bids” in a marital relationship.
He defines a bid as an attempt a spouse makes to establish a positive connection with his or her partner. When we make a bid, we are looking for things such as attention, acknowledgment, affirmation, and affection. And bids can take on a variety of forms. They can be verbal, as when we make a statement or a passing comment, or when we ask for help around the house or with putting the kids to bed. They can also be nonverbal, as with gestures, laughter, facial expressions (such as a smile or a come-hither look), or actions (such as an affectionate hug or playful wrestling). Women tend to make more bids than men, Gottman has found, but in flourishing relationships both partners are equally adept at making them. In one of his studies, Gottman monitored 130 newlyweds in their day-to-day life and found that the happiest couples made bids for each other’s attention regularly throughout the day.
Gottman’s studies have demonstrated that it’s not only the bids that are important but also the way partners respond to them. In the study of 130 newlyweds, the happiest couples not only made regular bids to each other throughout the day, but they also responded with interest to their partners when their own attention was sought. Gottman found, in fact, that the couples who were still together six years later responded positively to each other’s bids on average a whopping 86 percent of the time, whereas those who divorced turned toward their partners on average only 33 percent of the time. This interplay of initiation and response is so important in marital relationships that observing these interactions in another one of his studies allowed Gottman to predict with a stunning 94 percent accuracy which couples would stay together and which would divorce.
Love Is an Action Verb
We don’t believe that a relationship is the kind of thing that ever can be “perfect.” The word perfect actually comes from two Latin words meaning “thoroughly done.” And no relationship, as anyone who has ever been in one can attest, is ever thoroughly done. It can be over, of course, when one or both of the individuals decide to pull out of it or to stop trying, but as long as it’s a living relationship, it’s continually changing and growing. Although we don’t think “perfect” is a good goal for a relationship, we do believe “better” is. There is always something to learn about ourselves, our partner, and our relationship that can help us deepen and strengthen our connection.